Fresh­man law­mak­ers vow to make per­sonal vis­its to Iraq

The Washington Times Weekly - - National - By Christina Bellantoni

Capi­tol Hill fresh­men con­sid­er­ing changes to Iraq pol­icy next year are­scram­bling­to­taketrip­stothere­gion in or­der to un­der­stand bet­ter the con­se­quences of the prom­ise of troop with­drawal, which many of them used to win their elec­tions.

Most fresh­man Democrats, who ap­pealed to vot­ers frus­trated with the war, said they are try­ing to get onto con­gres­sional del­e­ga­tions to Iraq, known as “codels.” All the fresh­man law­mak­ers in­ter­viewed by The Wash­ing­ton Times — seven per­son­ally and sev­eral more via spokes­men — said that the trips are a pri­or­ity, though none have been sched­uled in ad­vance of the 110th Congress’ Jan­uary swear­ing-in.

“Ia­manx­ious­toge­tover­thereas soon as I can,” said Rep.-elect Jerry McNer­ney, Cal­i­for­nia Demo­crat. “Iraq is a crit­i­cal is­sue that re­ally needs to be re­solved, and the more I know about it the more I’ll be able to con­trib­ute to the so­lu­tion.”

Rep.-elect Tim Walz, Min­nesota Demo­crat, said he knows what it is like to leave a fam­ily and life be­hind when serv­ing in the mil­i­tary.

“I would love to go to­mor­row if they would send me,” he said. “I need to get there. For me it’s very, very per­sonal.”

Mr.Walz,aNa­tion­alGuards­man, pro­vid­ed­bas­ese­cu­ri­ty­for­thetroops dur­ing Op­er­a­tion En­dur­ing Free­dom in Afghanistan.

In ad­di­tion to visit­ing Iraq, he prom­ises to be a voice for troops, hav­ing worked for years to train Guard mem­bers and watch over their fam­i­lies. He will sup­port leg­is­la­tion help­ing vet­er­ans and their fam­i­lies with health care and deal­ing with pay­day lenders.

Rep. Christo­pher Shays, who has been to Iraq 14 times, said a mor­ereg­u­lar pres­ence of U.S. politi­cians in the war zone would have pre­vented many of the worst blun­ders, in­clud­ing the Abu Ghraib prison scan­dal.

“All mem­bers should go to Iraq, and they should go with an open mind,” the Con­necti­cut Repub­li­can said. “They should be will­ing to reeval­u­ate their ba­sic con­clu­sions.”

Mr.Shayswonre-elec­tion­de­spite a tough po­lit­i­cal en­vi­ron­ment, in part­be­cause­heree­val­u­at­ed­hisown po­si­tions on the war. He said he “saw a lot of mis­takes,” when visit­ing,in­clud­ingtroop­swith­oute­nough body ar­mor and a lack of money in the field.

“Youshouldgo,and­notjus­tonce,” said Mr. Shays, who was about to makean­oth­er­trip­toIraq.“Whether you sup­port it, op­pose it or are am­biva­lent, you ab­so­lutely need to go.”

Rep.-elect Ed Perl­mut­ter, ColoradoDemo­crat,agreedthatafirsthandob­ser­va­tion­will­helpin­com­ing fresh­men. “Be­ing there would give me a more com­plete pic­ture,” he said.

“I’d like to go right away,” said Rep.-elect Keith El­li­son, a Min­nesota Demo­crat who will be­come the­firstMus­lim­con­gress­man­inthe U.S. “It is up to politi­cians to make sure that sol­diers are in the right place, and to with­draw sol­diers whenit’scle­arthereisamil­i­tary­op­er­a­tionthathas­not­been­suc­cess­ful.”

But fresh­men must wait for their Jan­uary swear­ings-in be­fore con­gres­sional of­fices can ar­range a codel.

“I’m not pre­pared to tell peo­ple what they ought to do,” said Rep. Frank R. Wolf of Vir­ginia, a Repub­li­can­who­sug­gest­edthe­for­ma­tionof the Iraq Study Group.

“It isn’t like go­ing to see a field if you are sur­vey­ing agri­cul­ture pol­icy,” he said, while adding that “you learn a lot. There’s noth­ing like ac­tu­ally see­ing, lis­ten­ing, hear­ing and ex­pe­ri­enc­ing.”

Mr. Wolf, who has been to Iraq three times, said he al­ways wor­ries about plac­ing oth­ers in the del­e­ga­tion in dan­ger. On his first trip, he trav­eled­pri­vate­ly­out­side­ofmil­i­tary es­cort and re­mem­bers rid­ing in a beat-up car with a bro­ken wind­shield and “blood all over the place.”

DemocratRep.-elec­tSteveCo­hen of Ten­nessee said of visit­ing Iraq: “I sus­pect it’s some­thing that I should doas­partofmy­duty.Idon’tlook­for- ward to it, but it’s a duty prob­a­bly one should do.”

It’s un­likely all the fresh­men will get­to­go­toIraq,es­pe­cial­lyifthe­yare as­signed to com­mit­tees that do not han­dle­war­pol­i­cy­orde­fen­seis­sues. Still, even though the fresh­men haven’t yet seen Iraq with their own eyes, they have strong opin­ions about what the U.S. should do with the troops.

“Our sol­diers are sit­ting ducks,” Mr. Co­hen said. “I can­not com­pre­hen­da­suc­cess­ful­res­o­lu­tion,no­mat­ter­how­much­money,no­mat­ter­how many troops we amass. We have cre­ated a mess.”

“I’d like to see a com­plete re­de­ploy­ment,” Mr. McNer­ney said.

The­fresh­men­saidthe­ya­reea­ger to vote on such do­mes­tic mat­ters as em­bry­onic stem-cell re­search and the min­i­mum wage, but said no is­sue is more press­ing than the war.

“It’sthe­bigele­phantinthe­room,” saidRep.-elec­tHankJohn­son,Ge­or­gia Demo­crat. “Peo­ple are ready for the war to come to an end as quickly as it is pru­dent.”

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